Tiki-taka is dead. Long live tiki-taka.
As a die-hard Real Madrid fan, I thought this year’s Champions League semifinal victory against Bayern Munich was one of the greatest I had ever seen. Its implications spread further than my happiness, though.
The reaction at Bayern Munich was fierce. After losing the first leg 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Bayern’s honorary president, Franz Beckenbauer, said: “We're going to end up being unwatchable like Barcelona. The players will start passing the ball back even on the goal line.”
The backlash against “tiki-taka,” a style of play built around keeping possession at all costs, was in full swing. There were even think pieces that wondered whether tiki-taka was dead.
In fact, tiki-taka dissent been growing for the past couple of years. Here are some common things you will hear:
“Why take 37 touches to score when you can do it in 4?”
“Tiki-taka is boring; all they do is pass it around endlessly.”
Here's my stance: people who criticize tiki-taka are just jealous.
Now, there are no absolutes in football. There isn't one formation or style of play that guarantees victory, just as there is no single style of play that is always boring. Sitting back and waiting to counter can be very boring, just as many of Jose Mourinho’s teams have been over the years, or very exciting, as Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund sides have shown.
Yes, tiki-taka can be boring. And it can also be absolutely sublime:
But to say that “possession doesn’t matter, results do” is to set up a false dichotomy. The truth is that possession has yielded results. Amazing results. No national team has ever won three major tournaments in a row, like Spain has. Barcelona has largely dominated European football in the last decade with three Champions League victories and six La Liga titles.
What tiki-taka is, essentially, is insurance for the days when you simply aren’t inspired. First of all, it is an excellent defensive system. (Spain hasn’t allowed a goal in a single knockout game in the past three major tournaments.) When you have the ball, it is much harder for the other team to score. Also, by holding possession you put intense pressure on the other team to maintain absolute concentration at all times, often forcing them into a mistake. That is why Spain has been so successful despite lacking a true superstar in attack a la Messi or Ronaldo.
It is true that, in the past year, both Barcelona and Spain have struggled for results. Barcelona didn’t win a title this year and Spain was played off the pitch by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final last summer. One of the big reasons for this has been the decline of Xavi Hernandez, perhaps the greatest Spanish player of all time.
Xavi is tiki-taka personified. What he lacks in speed and athleticism he makes up for in technique, vision, and rapid decision-making. He has been a revolutionary player in the middle of the pitch for both Spain and Barcelona, winning everything along the way. The past couple of seasons have been difficult for him as he has struggled to maintain his fitness and has clearly lost a step.
How and whether Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque decides to cope with a life without Xavi will be one of the deciding factors in Spain’s chances in this World Cup. There are certainly plenty of players who can fill in, such as Atletico Madrid’s young star Koke.
What is clear is that Spain will not and should not abandon the spirit of Xavi. They should remain loyal to tiki-taka's particular brand of football. No matter what the haters say.